Part 3: Living with FASD as an adultby Cara Hetland, Minnesota Public Radio,
Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Many people assume that Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders affect only children, but it's a lifetime disease. Hundreds of thousands of adults across the country are affected.
Advocates say once a child with FASD turns 18, most of the safety nets disappear and a vast new set of challenges emerge.
Hunter Sargent is one of those adults. Sargent, who is 31, says his birth mother was a hopeless alcoholic who was abusive, violent and suicidal. After he was taken away from his mother, he spent most of his childhood with his grandmother or in foster homes.
Hunter says he was an angry, sometimes violent child, slow on the draw, and prone to trouble. He needed constant supervision. His doctors, his teachers and his social workers never picked up on the idea that he might have fetal alcohol syndrome. For years, he was misdiagnosed.
"As a child ... I was given a lot of different labels, everything from autistic to Down syndrome to ADHD, ADD, even cerebral palsy. Obviously, as you can see, none of that really contains (sic) to me," Sargent says.
When he was 12, Sargent says he watched a movie called "The Broken Cord," based on the book by Michael Dorris. It's the story of a young American Indian boy with fetal alcohol syndrome who was adopted off a reservation. The movie hit home with Hunter.
"I was watching this little boy's behaviors ... how he just processed things and stuff. For me it was kind of scary, because it was like I was looking at myself on TV," he says.
Hunter Sargent is American Indian. He's a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe. His Indian name, Eagle Cloud, is tattooed on his arm. Hunter says in Ojibwe, the name means "messenger."
Statistics show American Indian communities have been hard hit by the affects of alcohol. Indian Health Service data shows the alcoholism rate among Indians is more than 600 percent higher than the national average.
American Indians have the highest rate of fetal alcohol syndrome in the nation. According to the U.S. Department of Health, the incidence of FAS among American Indians is 30 times higher than whites, and some Indians in Minnesota believe that number could be much higher in some tribal communities.
Sargent has no job and he can't drive a car. He gets a monthly Social Security check because he's considered mentally disabled. He has poor eyesight and poor balance. He says his math skills are limited to counting on his fingers. Like many adults with fetal alcohol syndrome, Hunter can't manage his own money.
"One of the things that I've learned, because I'm very, very impulsive -- I had some huge, nasty bills when I started living on my own," Sargent says. "If I had access to my money, nine times out of 10 I'm not going to think about the rent, I'm not going to think about the phone bill, I'm not going to think about electricity."
Some studies suggest most adults with FAS will spend time in a drug treatment program, a mental hospital, or prison.
In that way, Hunter Sargent has been fortunate. He lives in a subsidized apartment in Plymouth. Hennepin County supplies him with a personal care attendant who provides help with day-to-day living, but Hunter says that help isn't always around.
"I gotta say, dealing with FAS as a kid was a lot easier, because I could hand off my frustration to somebody else and they'd deal with it," Sargent says. "Now as an adult, my support has certain hours that they work with me. But at night, if something were to arise, I have to constantly think of ways to diffuse myself from any negative or inappropriate behaviors or actions or thoughts."
Sargent's feelings toward his biological mother are a mix of rage and forgiveness. He says it's a daily struggle to keep his fetal alcohol syndrome under control, and Hunter says sometimes that's not possible.
"It's like a volcano. It's like, you know it's going to erupt. And sometimes you've gotta let it erupt. And for me, it's kind of scary when it erupts, because I never know when it's going to stop," Sargent explains.
"You can't ignore it, because it's going to erupt again, and it's going to keep erupting until you find a way to either put the lid on that volcano or catch the things that are really important to you, and try to put the things in that you'll deal with later back in that volcano, and try to remember not to overfill it and let it get that way again," Sargent says.
"Because nine times out of 10, if you lose control once, forget it. You've got to give yourself an hour or two, a few days before you can figure things out."
Sargent tries to lead a normal life the best he can. He knows his dream of one day becoming a police officer or a psychologist will never be fulfilled. He'd like to one day handle his own affairs, but he's not sure that will happen, either.
Hunter does have a girlfriend. He says someday he'd like to have children. But for now, it's all he can do to keep himself under control.
"I see my impulsivity, my anger, everything that resembles me, I see it as an inner child," Sargent says. "It's like a baby, you know. You ignore it too much it's going to cry, it's going to scream, it's going to do whatever it can to get your attention."
Cara Hetland has been a reporter for southwestern Minnesota and eastern South Dakota since 1989.